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Staying alive: Kate Bornstein gives the finger to cancer, suicide, and the gender binary

"Once you break down a huge fucking binary like gender, no other binaries seem to make sense": an interview with the much-loved trans author and artist.

Kate Bornstein is a queer and pleasant danger. Credit: Santiago Felipe. Kate Bornstein is a queer and pleasant danger. Credit: Santiago Felipe.

Other people get het up about gender, but not Kate Bornstein.

The much-loved trans writer, gender theorist, performance artist and former Scientologist approaches questions of identity with the same airiness that they do life, scattering their work with cartoons, cute jokes, and terms of endearment like "darling" and "sweetie".

The guiding principle? "Don’t be mean".

But Kate lived with leukaemia for nearly 20 years, and has battled chronic lung cancer more recently. Living in the US, they were unable to cover medical costs, yet a crowdfunder for friends and fans raised over $100,000. Now, they are cancer-free, and still here to tell us about it.

A delightfully eccentric figure, Kate exudes charisma. We met last May at London’s Hackney Attic, before their appearance alongside poet Roz Kaveney. It’s characteristic of Kate’s warmth that after the interview we end up eating hot dogs and drinking beer, while I listen to stories of how the two met years earlier. Gender theorists can be intimidating, but Kate is always inviting and deliberately inclusive.

Fittingly, their 2012 memoir is titled A Queer and Pleasant Danger: the true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady that she is today

They are currently appearing in season two of Caitlyn Jenner’s TV reality show ‘I Am Cait’.

RF: How do you think about your relationship to non-binary or genderqueer identities?

KB: Except for the first six months post-transition, I've always identified as non-binary. That's what my first book [Gender Outlaw] was about. It was subtitled 'On Men, Women and the Rest of Us'. I considered myself a woman for about six months. That was great. But then I really had nothing to hang that onto, and it felt as much of a lie as having been a man and a boy. 

RF: What I want to talk about is the point at which the messing with the gender binary has a wider political impact, but let’s start with how it's experienced in itself. You said you've always felt like a non-binary person. How does that feel for you?

KB: There was a survey done by HuffPo and Fusion magazine. It was called the 'Massive Millenial Survey'. Only in the US, but 1000 folks were surveyed from age 18 to age 32.

Fully 50% said, gender's not a binary, it's a spectrum. That's earthshaking!

Not that all of them identified as non-binary or genderqueer. But they all acknowledged the possibility of that. For me, the experience of non-binary starts with gender, for sure. But people who are claiming non-binary identities, that I know, are extending the non-binary identities to more than gender. They're extending it to sexuality, to religion, to race, to class. Because once you break down a huge fucking binary like gender, no other binaries seem to make sense.

RF: Let's come to the idea of gender anti-normativity spreading outwards. What's the potential for social change that comes from trans-gendering or being genderqueer in some way? 

KB: Most social structures are to one degree or another binary. That's just what humanity tends to do. Yes or no. Black or white. On or off. I think that with transgender, specifically with trans, not transsexual, but specifically with non-binary and genderqueer, or drag queens, or chicks with dicks, or butch dykes, or people who don’t fit into the category ‘real man’, ‘real woman’. Breaking down gender makes room for a template for a new non-binary construct.

Because even that is a construct. But it is a more liberating construct than a binary would be.

I think one of the biggest social changes there could be would be a revisioning of politics, and political activism as beyond either/or. There've been the occasional rainbow coalitions, or "yes we'll all come together!" and they inevitably leave someone out.

So by saying "trans includes everyone who wants to be included under that umbrella, and feels comfortable under that umbrella", not "trans is these sets of rules, and if you fit in then yes you're trans" - that slight difference right there would be a model for a social politic that actually works. You've actually broken the binary and put in its a place a construct that works and makes people feel good.

So theoretically, that could be a template for class, race, religion – instead of saints or sinners – you couldn't look at it that way anymore. That would be a hell of a social change.

RF: Perhaps one criticism of what you've just said is that it privileges non-binary identities above binary trans identities. So if you're non-binary you're fucking with the gender binary and breaking things down, but if you're a trans man or trans woman that's somehow politically less revolutionary.

KB: I can't speak for a binary oriented person. Never felt like a boy, never felt like a man, never felt...well except for those six months, like a woman. So I can't say whether it's privileging non-binary, so much as it is saying: "I'm willing that you're a woman, I'm willing that you're a man, because you say you are. You have such conviction, of course I believe you. That does not preclude my identity as neither.” I wouldn’t say “Oh, you unenlightened sod”.

I think what needs to happen, at some point, when non-binary rises up and is acknowledged, then there'll be less of the: “Well we're so much hipper than you”. I'll own that.

RF: In the last few years trans stuff has become much more mainstream in terms of media coverage. There was the famous “Transgender Tipping Point” Time magazine cover, and so on. What do you think of that? 

KB: You know, I've been fighting cancer for these past few years. I'm cancer free now. But I stopped my chemotherapy and radiation therapy, just a week before that issue of Time magazine came out.

It's changing now for sure. Nonbinary and genderqueer today is taking the marginalized space that transsexual used to hold before “The Tipping Point”. We are the ones it's okay to giggle about and point at.

They're not saying look how odd trans men and trans women are. They're still saying look how odd genderqueer is, look how odd non-binary is. And, there's a privilege that comes with aligning oneself with a binary, whether consciously or gut-feeling wise, you're aligned with the binary because that's the way it is, it's always been. Well ok.

RF: While there's been a lot more public recognition – particularly for trans women – it hasn't seemed to stem violence against trans women, particularly trans women of colour, which continues unabated.

KB: However, if you look at who is the face of transgender now? Laverne Cox: woman of colour. Janet Mock: woman of colour. But passing. And if you look at who's been murdered? It's people who didn't pass. Either because they finally took their clothes off, and had a penis, or they weren't passing, for some reason, they were perceived as 'a man in a dress', for some reason. 

That's who's getting murdered. Not the middle class. Because working class, or sex worker, trans folk, even who self-identify as trans women, are not granted that by people who spot them. They're just seen as black men in dresses, and black men have no cultural value. Not in my country. Unless you happen to be President of the United States! Yay, you got something.

But it's not a coincidence that the two most murdered groups are black men and trans women of colour. It's the devaluation of blackness.

RF: Moving on a bit – you wrote a book called Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws. I wonder if this an element of your work that you would describe as activist work, maybe in a different way to those of your books that were more specifically about gender.

KB: I was in New York when the 9/11 attacks happened, and from my front door, you could see the smoke rising from the World Trade Centre, and three days after the towers fell, the wind changed and blew up in our direction. And it was, ooh, acrid and bitter. And we realised, woah wait a minute, we're inhaling people.

And at that point I just – what the fuck is the value of postmodern gender theory in this frightening world? What do I possibly have to offer that has any value anymore? I'd been touring then maybe five or 10 years, and every campus where I'd gone, I was travelling on colleges doing speaking, there were higher and higher incidences of suicide. Amongst teens.

The bottom line of that book is: do what ever you need to do to make your life more worth living. One rule: don't be mean. You can say the same thing about gender. Be whatever gender you wanna be. Any time of day. You can get to switch it, do whatever you need. But don't be mean with it.

So while I was depressed and not knowing what to do, I realised, what I do know how to do is stay alive in the world. I've been suicidal many times, and managed to avoid it by finding something else to do. So I did a lot of research on suicide, as much as I could, before I made myself sick with reading what was being said about it. 

Because pretty much every suicide prevention book I ever read said: be good. And then it told you precisely how to be good. And I thought: no. That wouldn't keep me from killing myself. I've never been able to subscribe to anybody's model of good except my own. So I thought, alright. I'm an adult now. I'm an elder in the community. My words count, my words have a privilege to them. How can I best use that? Well, I can give permission.

I can say: I'm an adult, and you have my permission to do whatever the fuck you want to do. And that has seemed to work for a lot of people. The don't be mean thing, boy. I'm happy I came up with those words. That's all.

RF: I don't know whether to ask about cancer, because presumably it's been traumatic and also boring. But has overcoming it changed your perspective on the world? 

KB: Yeah. That's a biggie. So many people kept me alive. We don't have national health. I even had insurance but there were doctors that said “Nope, you don't fall under the right guidelines, we can't give you chemotherapy”. I would have died. So thanks to thousands of people who raised  a hundred thousand dollars for me in a very early crowdsourcing campaign. 

How do you feel when people say and act in such a way that you know that they love you? 

RF: Overwhelmed. 

KB: But somewhere in there you go “ohhh thank you”. There's that little:  “Ok! Ok! Someone loves me”. But when thousands of people do it hun? Overwhelming. Gee.

So part of the cancer was moving into treatment with all that love. I don't know that the medicine would have worked without it. And so, moving into treatment with that kind of love, for the first time in my fucking life. I was able to say: “Honestly, I'm gonna stay alive”. That's pretty cool. 

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About the authors

Ray Filar is a freelance journalist and an editor at openDemocracy, working on the Transformation section. Their writing has been published in The Guardian, The Times, and the New Statesman, among others. They are the editor of Resist! Against a precarious future (Lawrence & Wishart, 2015), a book about young people and politics. They tweet, @rayfilar, their website is here.

Kate Bornstein is an author, performer, and advocate for teens, freaks and other outlaws. Their twitter is @katebornstein.


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